EL PASO, TEXAS (KTSM) – In the NBA, analysts talk frequently about the difference between 82-game players, and 16-game players.
82-game players are regular season stars; 16-game players do their best work in the playoffs, because the style of play differs so much from the regular season to the postseason
It appears El Paso Locomotive FC head coach Mark Lowry might be an NBA fan, because he brought up a similar theory this week as El Paso prepares to play Phoenix Rising FC in the USL Championship’s Western Conference Finals.
In back-to-back seasons, Locomotive FC has been good in the regular season, but have found a different gear in the playoffs, playing some of their best soccer when the chips are down.
As such, they’ve been able to out-tough and out-execute their way into the USL’s Final 4 two years in a row. For Lowry, it’s all about the mindset his club takes on.
“It tends to be about winning certain minutes of the game,” Lowry said. “The first 15 minutes, right before halftime, the last 5 minutes. Those things are more important in the playoffs than in the regular season.”
In both the Western Conference Quarterfinals vs. FC Tulsa and the Western Conference Semifinals against New Mexico United, El Paso dominated large portions of the match, then proceeded to win in penalty shootouts in both matches.
Lowry feels that is a byproduct of the 2019 playoff run, when Locomotive played a 120-minute match in the conference finals against Real Monarchs SLC, losing 2-1 on a goal in the 120th minute.
“We’ve learned from last year how playoff games differ and we’ve managed those moments better this season. We intend to do that in Phoenix as well,” Lowry said.
El Paso heads into the conference finals against Phoenix riding a 13-match unbeaten streak that began on Aug. 8 with a 4-2 win over Colorado Springs. The last team to beat Locomotive: none other than Rising FC, in a 3-1 Phoenix win on Aug. 1.
El Paso doesn’t think its a coincidence that to get to the USL Championship Final, they have to go through the last team to hand them a defeat. Rising have been one of the top sides in the league for multiple years in a row, but El Paso has long felt that it should have won back in August.
“I think we all want to play them, to be honest. They’re a team we match up well against,” Locomotive FC midfielder Dylan Mares said. “I think this is a different go-around, we’re a much better team than we were then, and there’s not much you need to motivate you because it’s a final.”
With a trip to the league championship match on the line this week, they want to prove once and for all that they’re the better side.
El Paso and Phoenix will kick off in the Valley of the Sun at 8:30 p.m. Mountain Time on Saturday night. The winner will travel to face the winner of the Eastern Conference Final between Louisville City FC, or Tampa Bay Rowdies in the USL Championship Final on Nov. 1.